It’s 97 degrees in Toledo, and we’ve just arrived for our annual summer visit. I haul suitcases up the stairs from the garage while the abuelos show Basil his new toys and exclaim over how much he’s changed. JJ prints his train ticket for tomorrow’s business trip to Barcelona, and I get us settled in. I hang up sundresses next to winter coats from the last trip. Stow sandals in the shoe cupboard next to an old pair of sneakers. Organize baby shirts and pants. Then we all go sit outside in the shade with cold drinks and Spanish tortilla sandwiches to talk and watch Basil play.
When you have family on the other side of the world, trips to see them become markers in the seasons of your life, like the first snow signaling the start of winter. Each Christmas, each summer, we decide on our dates. Buy our tickets. Make plans to see friends and family before we leave. Pack our suitcases. Worry over keeping the baby entertained and fed on the flight now that we have Basil. And then we do the nearly 24-hour trip from California to Spain.
The trip itself is always exhausting. Two flights, one 9 ½ hours with a 16-month old. But once we are here, and start settling into a routine, I always feel the possibility in a life lived like this. The ways that having family in two countries stretches you. It makes you cross boundaries more often. Language, culture, food boundaries. There is a way that travel makes you see yourself anew, and these family trips to Spain do that for me. They make me start fresh. Each time I go through the list of things to attend to before leaving, make the trip, and then we’re here. And while the isolation of being far from family and friends can be hard, it also makes me read and write more, and I like that. I like the distance from daily life that comes with being in a faraway place.
Now, with Basil’s milestones marking the passage of time, each trip is even more of a new beginning. Last Christmas, he had just begun to crawl. He was pulling himself up on the dresser for the first time, opening drawers, figuring out how to get up stairs. Now he is walking, exploring each room on his own, climbing up on furniture, holding his Poppy’s hand as we walk through the old town to visit his Great Grandma.
This is the first trip to Spain since I finished my degree. Another new beginning. I’m excited to write while I am here, and see where it leads me. See how the future looks 2 weeks from now when I’m home again. And thanks to Meg’s challenge, and NaBloPoMo, I’m going to share more of the process here this month. See you tomorrow!
After four years of work, months of late nights and working every weekend, I turned in my dissertation almost 2 weeks ago! Two Mainstreams, One School System: The Complexities of Immigrant Integration in Barcelona. Finishing was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I did it, and I am proud. Now it’s time to think about what’s next. Get a job in research? Teaching? Work on a writing career? Explore work in digital storytelling for kids? Something else? All of the above? The possibilities feel wide open right now…
Nothing but baby and thesis around here for 27 more days. I have help every day. A babysitter, my mom, JJ. I work all the time, until 12 or 1 every night. It will get done, but only if I stay extremely focused. Finishing a dissertation really is that hard. Yesterday, an hour at the beach with JJ and Basil, playing in the sand and watching the sailboats. It was like having one bite of dessert, a small taste of what it will feel like to relax together again.
My days have been a river of one thing to the next lately, baby, shower, breakfast, thesis, baby, park, write, lunch, baby. A nap on a good day. Then baby, clean, cook, baby, baby, maybe thesis, baby, dinner, husband, thesis, write, read, sleep, baby, sleep, baby, sleep.
Then get up, and do it all again.
It’s really hard, this final push of my dissertation, with a one year-old. Thankfully, I have help. A babysitter two mornings a week. My mom a few days a month. A sister now and then. And most importantly, a supportive husband. A partner who’s thrilled to get home and scoot Basil off to the park, who loves being his dad as much as I love being his mom. But still, it’s really hard.
It’s hard to nurse Basil, put him down, kiss JJ, maybe make a cup of tea, and go sit down at my desk, every night. It’s hard to be tired, and to work anyway. It’s hard to think so much at the end of the day, every day.
All this focus makes me lose track of days. Whole weeks go by like a blur of fence posts on the interstate. Thesis baby thesis baby thesis baby. What, it’s Sunday again?
I’ve got so much other writing I want to work on. An essay about motherhood and work, inspired by an excellent post I read last month. Another for a post about how to get things done. And a page of scrawled notes about what it means to be original in the age of Instagram.
Maybe someday I’ll learn how to share these notes and ideas without feeling I have to refine and refine. I mean, we can have a conversation, tell a story, without perfection, right? The more I write, the better I feel at it. But it’s still so hard to post here sometimes, especially when I’m so tired. I can’t wait to have more time for all that other writing.
In the meantime, I jot things down, keep 5 different draft documents open and work on them when I can. And I keep wrestling the wild work in progress that is my thesis. Thanks to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, I think of it as a wild tiger:
“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”’.
I’ve learned that if I “tame the tiger” a little bit every day, I can remain the boss. Sitting down and writing for an hour or two today makes it possible to sit down more easily tomorrow. And when I stick with it, I have days when the tiger is curled at my feet, docile and purring, while my fingers fly over the keyboard with clarity and inspiration. Sometimes even at 11pm.
I feel like most people I know wish they took walks more often, and are always glad when they did. And you’re always hearing about the health benefits of taking walks. As a mother, writing at home, I don’t get very much alone time, so lately I’ve been trying to take walks more often. And every time I do, I think, this is the simple key to happiness.
I bring along a little notebook and pen. I pull my sweatshirt tight against the wind, breath in the fresh air, notice primroses, tulips, a house for sale. I pant up flight after flight of stairs that cut up the hill to Twin Peaks, San Francisco’s highest point. Problems with the current thesis chapter hover in my mind like helicopters, somehow louder and clearer as I walk. Today, I realized this is reason alone to get out on walks. I’m currently inspired by how the novelist Dawn Tripp describes why she runs, in her post for Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog Catching Days:
“I don’t run for time, speed, or distance. I don’t run to stay physically fit. I run to find a clearness of mind.”
And later in the post:
“Every morning I go out and run for this precise reason–to find my way deeper into a character’s self, some key turn of a story, to find that certain edge between intellect and free creative thought, to feel that shift in consciousness that allows me to write well. It’s not a state I can simply sit at a desk and think myself into–though many writers I know can. I have to be outside. I have to move. For me, it is that experience of the world–when I can breathe in the wind, the sun, the heat, the salt smell, the cold, and the light until the floss is stripped, and I am right there, in the pulse and life of a separate and entirely real, fictional world.”
What if I walked every day? What might happen in my writing?
Tell me, does walking (or running, or biking, or other movement) help you write?
A Poem by David Whyte
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
I walk down the San Francisco streets lined with Victorian row houses, and instead of noticing grand rooflines, or the often spectacularly ornate doorways and windows, I look at drain pipes, and telephone poles, and air vents. I crouch down to frame a shot of curling Magnolia tree bark, or the shadow of a twig in the slanting afternoon sun. I wait through three traffic light changes, Basil impatient in the stroller, to capture staples and bolts on a telephone pole.
Maybe it’s because my brain is filled beyond capacity with big ideas from my thesis, and I’m not getting nearly enough sleep. Or maybe it’s the endlessly clear, wide open, blue skies we’ve been having, bright and warm every day. Or possibly the craving for nature, and open space. But lately I go out in the world and focus on abstractions, on lines, on colors. I obsess about images that thrill with their negative space. I take picture after picture of corners, and slants of light.
Want to join me this week? What do the colors, shapes, objects in your daily life look like in the abstract?
This boy makes people smile everywhere we go. From the stroller he catches peoples’ eyes as we walk down the street. “Hi there” they say, “what a happy guy”, grinning in surprise, their tired, distracted faces momentarily transformed. Waiting in line to return a duffel bag, he is perched on my hip, checking out everyone ahead of us. I see first one, then another person break into a wide smile. An older, balding man with twinkling, blue eyes starts making silly noises and Basil breaks into loud, delighted giggles, causing all of us in line to laugh.
It’s 7:30 at night and the house is quiet. I hear a car pass heading uphill in the clear, winter night. I make a cup of chamomile-peppermint tea in my favorite hand-thrown ceramic mug, and prepare a plate of chocolate cookies and almonds to nibble. Then I sit down to work on my thesis, joining the thousands of working mothers across the country whose second shift begins when the children are in bed.
This is my last semester in grad school; I file my thesis in May. The finished dissertation will be about 200 pages. I have 127 written, of which 111 are the important ones, the pages telling a story of my research into the changes immigration brought to two Barcelona schools in 2009-10. It all needs rewriting and further work, but I’m getting there. One night at a time.
What will I do when I’m done? Here is what I thought when I applied to grad school in 2005:
“In my Ph.D. study I aim to further develop my analytical skills and research expertise while looking more closely at poverty and inequality in education. Specifically, I want to learn to evaluate educational reforms using quantitative and qualitative research methods while examining issues around school funding, equality of opportunity to learn, and education and development.”
I know. Stilted, boring, and so serious! What was I really aiming for? I know I was ambitious, and hell-bent on making a different life than the one I grew up in. I’d always been good at school, and continuing to study seemed like the answer. But really, I had very mixed feelings about what I was doing.
Nearly 7 years later, in the home stretch of my program, I’ve concluded the academic life – at least as I understood it then – is not for me. I love the writing and teaching parts, but not the research. The pressures, pretentiousness and pettiness of university jobs weigh too heavy, obliterating the joy of learning, teaching, and discovering new ideas that also come with being a professor. And, it turns out, I want a life a lot closer to the creative one I grew up in than I was willing to admit at 26.
So I’m not going to be who I thought I was going to be. Most of us aren’t, it turns out. But I am loving writing my thesis. No exaggeration. Loving it. Sure, working the second shift is tiring, and I get stuck at times. But working on the thesis has shown me I really am a writer. And I’ve learned enough about self-discipline, and managing unwieldy, long-term projects to write my first book, or start my own creative business, or possibly found a school one day.
For now, another late night of writing awaits. See you next Tuesday, if not before!